They were moving from the town of Small Mercies to the equally small town of Denial and they were in a mighty rush. The reason they were in such a rush was because rushing is more appropriate on the day of a house move than sitting in soft chairs calmly sipping sweet tea.
More appropriate and more stylish, it must be admitted.
Dust and clattering arose everywhere.
Bethan paused for a moment, stood with hands on her hips and her chest heaving in the hallway. Her chest might have been heaving in the hallway but the rest of her was in the lounge, which indicates how generous her bosom was. But this isn’t that kind of story, so forget such details and just be aware that she was angry. “Where is the removal truck?”
“For what time did you order it?” came the meek voice of Tommaso, her mate, who was packing his feather dusters.
“I didn’t order it for any time at all. You were the one who was supposed to order it. That was your task, not mine.”
“Ah, I see. You’ll have to forgive me but—”
“Forgive you?” Bethan extended her long and powerful arms and began rotating them at high speed from the elbows, as if they were mechanical flails on a collectivised farm. She always did this when she was exasperated but she didn’t know why. Nobody would ever know.
“I will order one now.”
“Better late than never, I suppose?”
“Yes, that’s a good attitude. I will just finish with this pile of red dusters before moving onto the blue ones and—”
“Save yourself the trouble!” snarled Bethan.
She turned and strode to the telephone on the little table, picked it up and dialled the number of a reliable removal company that she had used before. An impressively deep voice answered her.
“How may we assist you? You wish to hire one of our trucks? State your name and town of residence clearly.”
“Bethan K. Fullfor, Small Mercies.”
“Well, I generally am.”
Bethan winced, having heard that joke too often.
More information was exchanged.
“We will be there as soon as humanly possible.”
“Only humanly?” said Bethan.
The voice didn’t bother answering that one. It had a busy day ahead of it, that voice, and could indulge banter only in short bursts. Bethan replaced the receiver and turned to confront Tommaso. She snatched one of the red dusters out of his hands and slapped him with it.
“You worthless dolt! Take this and that and this again!”
Ten minutes later she desisted.
He was bruised but there wasn’t a speck of dust on him.
The truck arrived one hour later.
Bethan threw open the door and allowed the two muscular men standing on the threshold to enter and begin carrying the stuff in relays out of the house and into the back of the truck. Tommaso was the last item to be packed. One of the men lifted him up, held him horizontally under an arm and stowed him with the furniture, ornaments and carpet rolls.
Bethan rode in the front of the truck between the two men, one hand on the left thigh of the right one and the other on the right thigh of the wrong one. The vehicle bounced down the potholed road and her hands sometimes slipped up the legs they rested on. But nobody complained.
Tommaso could be heard somewhere far away in the back of the truck. It seemed he was singing or whimpering.
“He doesn’t like the dark,” explained Bethan.
“Maybe he should ride up here then?” the driver suggested.
“Oh no,” she said. “The fact he doesn’t like the dark is the reason I put him in the back in the first place. I’m not a nice person, but that doesn’t much matter because I have wonderful hair.”
“You do indeed. It’s very curly,” said the men.
“Yes and auburn,” agreed Bethan.
That settled the matter. They trundled out of Small Mercies and into the country and down numerous lanes that were only just wide enough for them. It was lucky that nothing came the other way.
The sun was setting when they finally arrived in Denial.
The new house greeted them and it was an empty shell but the men soon filled it with the objects in the back of the truck, including Tommaso, who was shaken but not fatally, and who helped with the rest of the unloading to the best of his limited ability. Then the task was done.
Bethan ostentatiously kissed both of the men farewell.
“Go on, it’s your turn!” she said.
“But really, I don’t know if I should,” spluttered Tommaso.
“You’d better!” she rumbled.
So Tommaso stood on tiptoes and kissed the men too.
“On the lips, you idiot!” cried Bethan.
He didn’t dare disobey. The men got back into the truck and drove off in low gear, wiping their mouths with their grubby sleeves and feeling grateful for the dirt that coats the cotton shirts of working men. Not that Tommaso was the worst kisser in the world, just that his tongue had been fluffy, as if he’d bitten a feather duster to mad pieces in captivity.
Bethan watched them depart, then she explored her new home. “Exactly the same size as our last house and the view through the windows is similar. It almost feels as if we haven’t moved at all.”
“Something’s missing,” ventured Tommaso.
Bethan narrowed her eyes and her eyebrows stood erect, each hair like a poisoned quill on the back of a specially prepared porcupine. “Oh yes? So you don’t like it? Think it lacks character?”
“Not that, not that at all! I meant it literally. Something is missing. It’s not the telescope or the gramophone or the pianola, nor is it the spittoon or drest of chaws (I’ll be perfectly honest and confess that I still don’t know what a drest of chaws is) or the solar-powered kettle or the hatstand that can hold hats from any period in history, or the clothes horse.”
Bethan rubbed her chin. “So what can it be?”
“Don’t you have a hunch?”
“No, but I will.”
It was the cat. These things are easily done. Cats get left behind just as often, or more frequently perhaps, than dogs, rabbits, canaries and goldfish. Pushkin had been sleeping in the garden during the move.
When he awoke, he stretched his paws and body, yawned wider than the cave of a mouse, padded to the back door and pushed through the cat-flap that always swung open with an astonished squeak.
The house was empty. Pushkin blinked and went wandering through the rooms. As far as he was concerned some disaster must have forced Bethan and Tommaso to flee. He couldn’t imagine that anyone would move for such feeble reasons as a new job, which actually is why Bethan had changed towns. No, it had to be for something more visceral than that.
Maybe a bear had entered the house and chased them out.
But if so, where was the bear now?
And what was a bear anyway? Pushkin had never seen one.
He searched for food, found none.
“The bear, whatever one is, must have eaten it all,” he decided, “and also taken all the furniture, so there’s no option for me left but to find my owners. I will have to embark on a hazardous journey. I had better prepare myself for such an epic voyage in the traditional way.”
And he licked himself six times in six ritual places.
“I’m ready now,” he told himself.
It was getting dark, which was the perfect time to be setting off, so with scarcely a glance behind him, Pushkin returned to the garden through the noisy cat-flap and weaved silently between clumps of long grass on the badly tended lawn all the way to the crumbling brick wall that formed the garden’s boundary and then he leaped onto this and over it.
He landed in a foreign garden and was instantly on the alert, for cats that weren’t him, namely other cats, owned this territory, or rather they claimed it as part of their own kingdoms, whereas it fact it overlapped with his own and with others. It was on the margins of the civilised world and needed regular patrolling to prevent incursions from rivals, but he didn’t have time for that now. He had to keep going in a highly unnatural straight line.
Pushkin distrusted straight lines. They seemed awkward.
Sometimes straight lines were necessary and useful and even essential, as in the top of a garden wall that one wished to use as a path. But Pushkin’s quest now would take him over such walls, not along them. He felt an insistent pull in one direction only and decided to keep going that way. His whiskers twitched in rhythm to the undulations of his agile body.
He crossed a dozen gardens and then cleared the last wall into an alley. It was extremely dark here and the way was obstructed with abandoned objects of inconceivable function and it was not an easy matter even for an experienced cat to negotiate the full length of the way. But Pushkin managed it. It disgorged him into a meadow on the edge of Small Mercies.
He had escaped the town. But how far did he have to go?
The countryside was a place that was both enthralling and frightening. He heard the bark of foxes in a nearby wood, the flap of wings that might have been those of hungry owls, the slither of snakes.
But at the end of the day, and the day really was over, he was Pushkin, an indefatigable sort of feline, not one to be cowed by cows, made to feel sheepish by rams, unresistingly badgered by badgers.
“Am I a man or a mouse?” he asked himself, and his reply comforted and encouraged him. “I am neither. I am a cat!”
Yes, he was Pushkin and no more need be said.
He walked all night and went into a trance so that the distance became the detritus of a dream, the miles dispersed behind him like smoke, and even though his exhaustion was acute he kept going, following a particular star, following the point of celestial light, that distant sun, even when the clouds came together like spoilsport curtains and covered it from prying slitted eyes. He still knew where it was and was determined to use it as a guide.
But it wasn’t the North Star and it moved gradually across the sky like all other stars, so the route of Pushkin’s voyage was actually a gentle curve over the landscape that only felt like a straight line.
Then the stars began to lose force as if they were suffering from twinkle fatigue and they dimmed and the sky grew lighter in the east, which was the east because the sky grew lighter there, and Pushkin found himself standing on a hill, more of a grassy knoll really, looking down at a town, a town that wasn’t Small Mercies. He hadn’t gone in a giant circle.
But it wasn’t Denial either and he didn’t yet know that.
It was Shovekin, a strange place.
No roads led into this town, only mud paths that were baked hard or slimy and treacherous depending on what the weather did. At the moment they were a bit soft but not like linear quagmires. It had rained in the past week but it hadn’t poured. No clouds had burst. Most of the water had been absorbed, drunk deep into the earth and only a few bubbles had been hiccupped back out, where they swirled around each other in the very narrow ditches on either side of the paths like liberated cuckoo spit, dancing waltzes.
As he walked down the hill, refreshed by the sight of the town despite the rigours of his journey, his tail held high, Pushkin heard the solitary whining of a dog rising like sonic smoke above the chimneys of the houses, and he felt a little fear but decided to suppress it and continue.
The dog in question was standing at the end of the path and he was clearly guarding the space between the town and the rest of the world on this side of the compass, not that he really knew what a compass was. Pushkin stopped when he caught sight of the big brute, but the dog’s nose twitched a few times and his tail began wagging and then he said jovially:
“Good morning! Have you come to live here too?”
“You can speak!” gasped Pushkin.
The dog rolled his eyes in mock alarm. “So can you!”
Pushkin relaxed and purred.
“I am looking for my owners,” he explained.
“Your owners?” said the dog.
“They vanished yesterday. I think they ran away from an acquisitive bear. I am searching for them. Are they here?”
“Your owners, you say?”
“My owners are Bethan K. Fullfor and Tommaso.”
“Your owners! Ha ha!”
“Why are you laughing at me?” asked Pushkin.
“I’m not laughing at you but at your naivety. Don’t you know that you are their owner, not the other way around?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” admitted Pushkin.
The dog continued, “Human beings are the rightful pets of animals. That’s the way nature intended it to be, that’s how it works, but this truth seems to have been forgotten in most parts of the world.”
“How do you remember it?” Pushkin wanted to know.
“Because this town is Shovekin.”
“What difference does that make?” persisted Pushkin.
“A big difference, believe me.”
“Won’t you reveal what I ought to know?”
The dog took a deep breath and said, “It often happens that human beings move house and forget to take the animals that share their homes with them. The animals are forced to set off on long voyages in order to find those humans. It is not uncommon for them to find this place instead, Shovekin, the town where the rightful order of things is preserved. For example, you have found it. Here, dogs and cats and all other animals are in charge and men and women are their pets. I am glad you have found your way here.”
“You are inviting me to join your community?”
The dog bowed, bending its front legs until its noble head nearly touched the ground, then it straightened. “Yes.”
Pushkin licked his lips. “May I look around first?”
“You may indeed. Follow me.”
The dog led Pushkin into the town. It looked similar to Small Mercies and the streets and buildings were almost identical. Cats and dogs walked along the pavements and many were leading humans on a leash. Sometimes those animals were in a hurry, perhaps on their way to an important meeting, but their humans would stop to greet other humans, shaking hands and discussing the weather for ages, until the exasperated animals would jerk the leash and pull them apart and set off again at an even more rapid pace.
They passed a garden in which swung a cage from a tall pole and in the cage was a man. He was unable to stand up or stretch himself and he seemed to be very unhappy imprisoned like that. He was dressed in an expensive business suit that was frayed and creased, but a parrot was perched on the top of the cage and was calling down through the bars:
“Johnny wants a salad? Who’s a clever adult then? Pretty Johnny, pretty Johnny. Can you say that? Pretty Johnny.”
The man in the cage mumbled something unintelligible.
“What was that, Johnny? What are you going to offer me for a salad? Do you want to make me an offer, Johnny?”
“Stocks and shares,” croaked the helpless prisoner.
“Good businessman,” said the parrot.
“It might seem cruel, but apparently humans don’t have souls, so it’s not at all cruel really,” explained the dog.
Pushkin was very impressed by the fact there was no motorised traffic on any of the roads. Humans that had been let off the leash frolicked in the middle of the street, brewing tea right there and reading newspapers, all the silly games they enjoy so much. “Amazing,” he said.
Further along, two hedgehogs were nailing a human into a box. This was because it was that person’s hibernation time. Then they passed a man who was wearing a uniform and cap and was standing to attention behind a gate. “Do you have an appointment?” he snapped at them.
“What did he ask me that?” said Pushkin.
“Oh, he’s just a guard human. Some animals keep them to deter intruders and burglars. Do you like this place?”
“It’s like paradise,” replied Pushkin.
“We will give you a house and you can choose a pet from the abandoned humans’ shelter if you feel the need for one.”
“Assuming I’m accepted into the community?”
“I feel confident you will be.”
“I think I adore this place already.”
The dog nodded. “Good. All that remains is for me to introduce you to the ruling committee of the town. All of us found our way here after our pet humans moved house and left us behind.”
“Humans really are rather stupid,” said Pushkin.
“That’s why we love them so!”
“Yes, yes, I suppose it is. But there’s one thing.”
“What is it?” asked the dog.
“I do miss Bethan and Tommaso. It wouldn’t feel right having any other pets. The substitution would be inadequate.”
“You never know. You might still get them back.”
“How is that possible?”
The dog flung a paw around Pushkin’s shoulders and in a conspiratorial voice said, “Where do you think all the humans who live here come from? They dwell in their distant towns for only a short time before they wake up to the fact that their ‘pets’ are missing, that they forgot to take them along in the move. So they get frantic and start searching for them and frequently they end up here, in Shovekin, reunited with their beloved animals but with the proper relationship restored between them. In your case—”
“No,” said Pushkin sadly, “I don’t think my humans will do that. There is something a bit peculiar about them.”
“Humans can be incomprehensible. Ah well! You can only wait and see. Incidentally, I haven’t introduced myself formally yet. I am Shako. Follow me and I’ll present you to the committee.”
And he trotted down a narrow alley and through a hole in a fence. With a spring in his step, Pushkin kept close behind.
Bethan finally had her hunch but it didn’t help her to work out what was missing and to be honest the hunch didn’t suit her. So she removed her cardigan and the hunch fell out. It was a large purple pillow and it landed on the floorboards with a satisfyingly plump and comfy sound.
Bethan bent forward and stared down intently but she wasn’t scrutinising the pillow. It was the varnished floorboards she was more interested in. Why did they seem wrong? They were smooth and shiny and unscratched. Was there any clue in the fact of their pristine condition to help her decide why this new house had an inferior atmosphere to the old?
“Tommaso!” she bellowed. “Tommaso!”
He came running, slipping on the polished wood in his pink slippers and struggling to untie the knot in his apron.
“Yes,” he panted anxiously.
She knitted her brows, the only thing she ever cared to knit. The task of darning socks in this domestic setup was done by him. “Do you still think we might have left something behind us?”
“I have learned not to attempt to think.”
“Idiot! I am ordering you to do so now. Tell me, did we forget something when we moved from Small Mercies?”
He visibly seemed to shrink, but his mind was working; his ears glowed as they always did when cogitating. “Could it be,” he ventured mildly, “that we didn’t bring the cat along with us?”
“Pushkin, you mean? Don’t be absurd!”
“It’s just that I haven’t seen him around lately and in fact I don’t think I have seen him since we arrived here.”
Bethan folded her arms under her bosom, threw back her head, laughed at the ceiling until the ceiling started to get paranoid. “You are most amusing, dear, like a mediaeval clown or jester. Like a fool. You are a fool, aren’t you? A silly and pointless buffoon. But that’s why I value you. I would have sold you years ago to the slaughterhouses or into slavery if you weren’t so darned entertaining. Annoying, certainly, but in a good way.”
“Thank you.” He curtsied somewhat clumsily.
“However,” she continued, and her tone became icy, “there’s a time and a place for everything; and right now isn’t the time for humour. So be sensible and answer my question properly or you will be horribly mutilated by these hands of mine. Look very close.” And she lifted them up like solid yeti footprints in front of his pale face with its quivering muscles.
“I can’t think of anything that might be missing,” he said.
“Good.” She nodded vigorously.
Tommaso noticed the pillow on the floor and he squatted to retrieve it. He was in this position when Bethan suddenly rested her hands on the crown on his head, preventing him from rising again.
“It couldn’t be the cat. How could it be? We still put out cat food and it is eaten. That proves Pushkin is still around. Or are you going to suggest that other cats come in at night illegally to devour it?”
“You know best,” he said.
“Yes dear, I do. I see you have found my hunch. It’s your turn to wear it. If you take it off without permission I will have you sent to the recycling depot. I want you to shout ‘the bells, the bells’ at intermittent intervals until I tell you to stop. Do you understand? Do you?”
“Yes, yes, anything you say, anything at all!”
She removed her hands from his head and strolled over to the window and gazed into the garden. They would never go in search of Pushkin because as far as she was concerned there was no need and Tommaso wouldn’t dare disagree with her. In fact he was now equally convinced that Pushkin still resided with them. Unlike many other couples they would never set off on the quest to locate their absent cat and they would never stumble across the town where he was. He simply wasn’t missing in the first place.
There was a logical reason why they had this attitude.
They were living in Denial.